Dear Jumbo: Don’t be yourself

“I’m sick of this whole job application thing where I have to fit in a specific mold, measured by GPA and resumes that do not define who I am.”

You may have heard or even experienced a similar sentiment before. Think about adapting to the norms of new friends or applying for jobs (hello seniors!). Some of us work hard to fit in societal boxes and then struggle to escape them. If that describes you, you have my admiration. As someone who is often unapologetically myself, I have never quite understood that sentiment until a mentor told me about the two different sets of skills: conformity and authenticity. One is about fitting in; the other is about standing out. Tufts, and Western culture in general, values the latter more. Just look at the kind of advice we often hear: be original, celebrate your identity, follow your passion, find your true self.

I think both are valuable in different ways, and here I want to defend the value of conformity.

To conform, we need to be aware of the environment — what is acceptable and what is not. This is no small feat: It takes a lot of energy initially to figure out the rules and the impact of our actions on other people. I have made friends and even bosses feel weird, ashamed and even frustrated without knowing it because of the underlying assumption that if people aren’t okay with me, they will let me know so that I can be better. Alas, such assumption reveals a fair dose of tactlessness and irresponsibility, and it has cost me dearly. First, it’s not good for relationships: Most people won’t bother spending energy to tell me how pissed off they are. They will just leave. Even those who care enough to tell me will eventually get tired. Second, making someone frustrated, whether intentional or not, is unproductive. It will leave people with a bad taste, like finishing a nice dessert and discovering a fly at the bottom of the plate.

*It is important to be liked.* If that sounds obvious to you, know that it wasn’t for me. While I used to believe that there are more important things to do than being liked, experiences have taught me that oftentimes, people need to like me first before those important things can get done. Whether you call this skill of fitting in diplomacy or social intelligence, it is reality. So here is the message for those who have yet to feel comfortable in their own skin, who struggle to break out of the predefined molds: You’ve got a skill that many covet. You are considerate and tactful. You can read the situation well and build rapport. We need both authenticity and conformity so that we can be pleasant to others and ourselves. We need both to have meaningful Define The Relationship moments with the people in our life.

On the last note, I find it quite amusing that while some people spend way too much time getting approval, some don’t do it nearly enough. For the latter group — the misfits like me — sometimes *don’t be yourself* is the better advice. What has your experience been like about these two skills? Let me know at bit.ly/dearJumbo!


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